Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Drone Warfare: How UAVs are changing the 'rules' of 21st century conflict.

    Warfare is taking a new turn in the 21st Century.

    If there's one weapon that proves we're living today in some kind of dystopian future sci fi novel it must be the existence and increasing capabilities of unmanned attack drones. The deaths of 24 Pakistani soldiers at the hands of NATO last week and the resulting diplomatic shitstorm shines a big fat xenon flashlight on how future proxy resource wars are going to play out.

    The future will be war by remote control.

    All those drones you read about hitting targets in Pakistan or Yemen or whatever other strategic desert the US gets interested in these days are piloted remotely by US Air Force personnel operating from air conditioned rooms on the far side of the planet from the target zone. How sci fi is that? The base of operations is Creech Air Force base just outside Las Vegas in the Nevadan desert. From here pilot commands get relayed around the globe by a network of military satellites and deliver precision death from the sky on the cheap. Drones can deliver a Hellfire missile for far less cost than a $350 million F-22 Raptor can. And target damage is the same no matter how that ordinance gets delivered. Pilot training is cheaper too with the added caveat of not risking a pilot's life in the process and, let's face it, with a whole generation of unsupervised 12 year old Xbox Live kids sitting home alone with an overworked mom and a dad who bailed to Reno with the babysitter, the US Air Force already has a built in supply of semi trained potential pilots on standby. That is, of course, if the Air Force brass don't mind their com channels filled with terms like homo, faggot and fuck this lag.

    But the real question posed by unrestricted drone warfare is how drones change and re write the rulebook and ethics of modern warfare itself. Brookings Institution policy wonk PW Singer makes a chilling observation:
  • IF armed unmanned drones are used against legitimate military targets in, say, Pakistan
  • AND these drones are piloted out of the suburbs of Las Vegas, Nevada
  • THEN is a Pakistani 'radical' car bomb in the Walmart parking lot outside that Air Force base in Las Vegas an act of terrorism... or a legitimate act of military retaliation?

        That right there my friends is one of the most interesting military questions of our time.

        Is the 'War on Terror' justifiable if you can remotely deal death from the skies on the other side of the planet and call it 'military action'? By that very logic, a Pakistani or Yemeni national chucking a grenade into an American Mall food court during the Christmas shopping season is a military strike and not terrorism. The only difference between terrorism and legitimate military action here seems to be the intended target. The brass at the Pentagon will say drone strikes only reign down on the bad guys and they're ever so sorry if their wives and children get vaporized because they were sitting next to them when the Hellfire missile 'eliminated their mountain dwelling'. By the same logic, any pissed off Pashtun with a beef against the US who plants a pipe bomb at a strip mall outside Creech AFB can say the target was USAF personnel and he's ever so sorry the blast took out some women and children shopping next door at JC Penney.

       Same difference morality wise, right?

       That's how drone warfare looses you the moral high ground. The new paradigm of 21st century US drone warfare makes all civilians targets and covert operations 'outside theater' on US soil by Middle East nationals legitimate acts of war.

       The other interesting thing about drone warfare is that it pits high tech versus low tech.

       High tech industrial economies versus low tech desert strongmen sitting on the oil everybody wants. Those on desert sands who don't play ball in the global energy chess game get called 'terrorists'. Those who go along with the program get called 'allies'. It's a global petro dollar game of Risk and it sure is fun to watch if you're a fan of how 21st century proxy resource wars are going to play out.

      Drone warfare offers high tech societies a future where they can minimize casualties by using machines. It's easy to see why Western war planners like the concept. In Western countries human casualties still matter. Volunteer armies are not easy to recruit. Sure, the current state of Western economies makes recruiting easier simply because there are a whole lot more people in search of a paycheck. But in the US right now the Army still buys air time on TV and runs commercials showing how cool it is to run around in foreign deserts dressed as a soldier and shoot 'enemies' while omitting the unfortunate fact that you might die while doing it. Not dying in a war has always been a key goal for every soldier. It's kind of important. Bodies coming home pine boxed from foreign shores always put a dent in the war aspirations of politicians. Kitchener's WWI "I Want You" posters were similar beguiling motifs back in 1914 but that was a different time, when throwing generations of young men onto the Somme didn't lose you street cred. Today, shit's different. Casualties matter more than ever in our corpo sci fi dystopia because everybody wants to live forever so they can continue buying cool new TVs.

        Let's face it, we're living in Blade Runner.

       The US is way ahead in drone technology but that doesn't mean there are not a whole bunch of other nations fast tracking their own remote machines to give their generals something new to play around with on their war planning desks. Drones are such a hot commodity right now and their worth so precious that the US won't sell them except to "trusted partners" (code speak for the UK and Israel). And even those sales are only previous generation stuff (unarmed Predator recon types) while the US keeps all the serious stuff (armed stealth drones) for themselves. When the US restricts arms sales, you know they're pretty serious about drone warfare and future tech.

         The standard vanilla US drone is the Predator MQ-1.

        Designed in the early nineties as an unmanned reconnaissance aircraft, it didn't take the Air Force brass or the CIA long to figure out that fitting some AGM-114 Hellfire's on that baby could make it a pretty potent interdiction craft. The Predator family soon expanded into four variants, all rear prop driven and they've been used all over Yemen, Pakistan, Iraq, Libya and Iran though the US government refuses to acknowledge their attack role even though you can read about it in every newspaper every day.

        The fun part of this story is that the US just lost one of their top secret RQ-170 Stealth Drones over Iran this week. That sure must have pissed the CIA off and earned some X-Box kid at Creech AFB a sizable pay cut. I mean, that wreckage is liable to wind up in some Chinese science lab pretty soon just like the wreckage of the F-117 Stealth fighter that was shot down during the Kosovo War did, downed by the Serbs with a shitty Soviet SA-3 system that proved awesome back in 1999. The US responded by "accidentally" dropping five 2000lb JDAMS on the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade two months later but it still wasn't enough to prevent the wreckage boarding the fast train to China. The RQ-170 'wreckage' in Iran is probably bound for the same fate. [UPDATE] Iran just displayed the captured drone and it looks perfectly intact!

        The Iranians are claiming they jammed it and hacked the controls by way of a 'cyber attack' and I, like everyone else, thought that a bit of a stretch considering their whole nuke program got grounded last summer by a computer virus. But that intact drone footage sure seems like a 'controlled' landing to me. I'm sure the CIA are having a shit fit behind the scenes. They barely even acknowledge the existence of the RQ-170 Stealth Drone in the first place. To have one on display in Tehran and picked over by Iranian tech crews has fail written all over it from a US point of view.

     An RQ-170 was spotted in 2009 at a remote airfield in Kandahar, Afghanistan which is funny when you consider the Taliban have no radar to track it in the first place and rely on good old goat panic as an enemy early warning system. The RQ-170 was stationed in Afghanistan but obviously had bigger prey in mind. That Stealth Drone is the system that kept an eye in the sky on Bin Laden's house in next door Pakistan while the SEAL Team raided it and, incidently, where the US lost that 'Stealth Helicopter' that nobody even knew existed.

    Iran's new perfectly intact wreckage!

        These latest developments in classified robotic warfare, projects like the RQ-170, are developed at the famed Skunk Works facility in the Californian desert. That top secret tech development center and the experimental aircraft rolling out of there bring up another fun question in all of this and that is the very nature of Air Power itself. The US Air Force branched out of the Army in 1947 after the strategic bombing program over the Reich proved so successful if you didn't give a shit about civilians. Hell, Hiroshima and Nagasaki proved that in spades when civilians were the actual target.

       However, in our current logic, this does tend to cause problems. Especially when you're fighting the smaller proxy resource wars the US finds itself engaged in on multiple fronts today. There was even one fun report by way of Wikileaks a while back, that revealed that British forces in Afghanistan had actually put in a request for the US to stop bombing by drone because they were missing their targets too often and killing civilians; acts which made the whole ground war over there more difficult since landing a bomb on a goat herder's mud shack and wiping out his whole family is likely to turn that goat herder into a fully committed IED laying enemy combatant pretty fast.

    UPDATE 2013: Check out ARGUS. If they're showing you this on Nova (a PBS documentary), that means it's already old technology. With these drones now flying over US cities, say goodbye to that quaint idea known as privacy.

        The truth is, there is no stopping the robot future. No US politician and no sleazy defense contractor is going to sit back and let the Chinese or Russians catch up. We're on the fast track to robotic war. The scope and theater of this war is unlimited when you consider the retaliatory strike options on US soil from low tech guys with no access to RQ-170 stealth aircraft of their own but plenty of access to U-Haul trucks and fertilizer. No one knows what UAVs will unleash in the future.

        Only one thing is for sure about the future when it comes to us humans.

        There will be warfare there.


    Tuesday, November 22, 2011

    Doomsday Scenario: A nuke in a major world city.

       I got to thinking the other day of global doomsday scenarios.

       Yeah, I'm that miserable.

       And I'm not talking ancient Mayan calender 2012 galactic alignment bullshit either. If this world goes belly up, it'll be entirely our own doing. Asteroid impacts and super volcanoes have a habit of taking too long. And let's face it, doomsday forecasting is a pretty common hobby these days. Especially in Western economies where we're all looking around and wondering what the fuck happened? Europe and the US are going through an existential crisis right now. With 50 million people on food stamps in the US and the Euro currency on the brink of implosion, it's logical that there are a whole lot more plebs willing to wander outside their comfort zones and don a figurative and funky hand drawn cardboard "The End is Nigh" sign on the doorstep of their local supermarket. The global elite stole all the cash. Tragic and criminal, but not exactly a full on Domesday Book. At least not yet.

        I've got a Doomsday scenario which I'm pretty much convinced is written into the DNA of the 21st century. It just has to happen. From the moment Oppenheimer marvelled at his 'destroyer of worlds' fireworks in the Nevadan desert in 1945 and us upright apes stumbled across fission, a Fat Man going off in a world city sometime in the future was pretty much written into the narrative. It's a simple numbers game. In the long run, the probability of nuclear disaster goes to 100%. The fewer people who have the bomb, the longer that event will take to occur. That's the whole philosophy behind the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

        Postponing D-Day.

        But really, it's just a matter of where and when. That's just how we humans roll. What good is inventing a super weapon anyway if it never gets used? The time interval between Hiroshima and a rogue nuke blast in a major world city will be seen by future historians as a mere blip because once it happens, you'll be able to skip all the mediocre history in between.

        It will be the event that will change everything.

       And yeah, I'm aware that I'm sounding like the guy with the cardboard sign outside the supermarket. Doomsday forecasting is a pretty shitty enterprise because you are always wrong up until the time you are right. And by the time you are right, nobody gives a shit anymore because they're too busy looting the local 7-11 for canned goods.

       How will it happen?

       For one thing, it won't be a nation state affair. The Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) paradigm has worked out pretty well for the last sixty years and I don't see that changing anytime soon. When the event comes, it won't be the major powers trading ICBMs. At least not at the beginning. No, when the big one goes off in New York, Los Angeles or London (or, just as likely, a smaller but significant world city near you) it won't be because China or Russia sanctioned it. That'd just be insane on every body's part and invoke a "take us back to the Stone Age" war. No, when the fireworks come, the nuke will be 'rogue', some low yield, low tech piece of shit lifted from an arms depot in Pakistan, traded on the black market in some Albanian dive bar and detonated by a bunch of whack job religious freaks with some beef against your version of what god you'll meet after you die. (If any).

       Sure, the 'War on Terror' is bullshit designed to stake a claim on Mesopotamia's oil reserves but that doesn't mean there are not a whole bunch of people out there who hate the West's guts and very willing to press the red button. In fact, there's easily enough seething animosity at current Western Mid East policy that enlists no shortage of reactionaries willing to let loose the Unforgettable Fire for whatever eschatological reason you want to choose from. The 21st century corpo techno dystopia we're all living in means it's only a matter of time before nukes fall out of the hands of nation states and into the hands of a genuine Bond villain.

       Source number one?


       That's right, America's ally from hell.

       Pakistan is the country in the world right now that gets zero media attention versus its time bomb weight in international affairs. Sure, US military doctrine is all about surrounding Iran and engaging in proxy resource wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but the true energy wars are still a decade away. There's an old saying in military generalship circles when embarking on any campaign that goes "always plan for the unexpected." That sure holds true today. Especially for Western intel outfits who are scared shitless behind the scenes of the real 'event' that would make 9/11 seem minor. These days, the War on Terror is like a trench coated flasher showing up at your eight year old's birthday party. Sure it's fucked up but it isn't actual physical contact. It's only a view that results in psychological damage. Nobody actually got raped. World media right now adheres to the same consolatory 'it could be worse' paradigm. Shit's bad, we're broke and global resource wars are about to get kickstarted but so what, the supermarkets are still full and there's still gas in your car. Accept the inappropriate view of flasher dick.

        A 'rogue' nuke will shatter all that.

        Here's how.

        In the US right now, you can't get on an aeroplane without having some mouth breather feel up your nut sack for an underwear bomb. Meanwhile, uninspected cargo ships roll in and out of the world's ports everyday. Millions of steel containers get unloaded and any of them could contain the rogue nuke from hell. And the politicians don't give a shit. They're so busy fighting the last decade's "terrorism war" that they miss the point every time in favor of the ease of global commerce. Free flow of capital trumps everything. Bagging cash defeats logic. Future generations in the post apocalyptic wasteland will hate us and yeah, Mad Max II is an awesome movie but who wants to live there?

        I'm not saying enhance the police state already created for citizens since 9/11. I'm saying ditch the TSA and put all those guys to work in the world's ports. That's where the real threat lies if you really give a shit about "terrorism". In fact, getting your nutsack felt up before you board a plane is pretty much proof that the "terrorists" have already won. If you buy the idea that they "hated us for our freedom", then today's lockdown dystopia is proof that the metaphoric bad guys are already high fiving like crazy and snorting lines off hooker tits. We today have created a lockdown sci fi dystopia that would make Orwell shit bricks. The "good" cop's house got raided. The whistleblower is 'illegal'. A public assembly to redress grievances needs a 'protest permit'. Cops pepper spray your face for pitching a tent on the sidewalk because you occupy some space and wonder what the fuck is going on.

    Nukes. In the 50s, they were a spectator sport. Go figure that shit.

       Let's get to the serious stuff, the rogue doomsday nuke itself.

        Pakistan sure is a fun zone if you like studying nations on the precipice of failure. But you know what the CIA, Mossad, Russia's intel services (former KGB) and the hodge podge UN (IAEA) really care about? Pakistan's nukes. So let's examine those for a minute. Pakistan is critical to Western interests because they are so scary. You remember that drooling guy on the playground when you were a kid? You know, the one who stole your lunch money? The one that was dangerous when you were nine but is now forty and living in a trailer park addicted to meth. Pakistan is that guy. Only today he's still the bully in his prime and stealing US lunch money because no Pentagon intel report knows how far the crazy will go. Obama's drone strikes on those Pashtun fucktards inside Pakistan are not exactly helping to cool shit down either. Hell, that's probably why they had no problem letting Bin Laden kick back and watch himself on TV in a compound a mile from a major military base.

        Let's face it, the West's bad guy number one was a hero over there.

        That says everything you need to know.

        Pakistan hates the US right now. And the sleazy Pakistani politicians who have a tenuous hold on the seething time bomb over there like the pay off money the US provides. The US dumps $2 billion a year into the Pakistani military and even that extortion cash buys them nothing. The Pakistani political system is barely functional. The Pakistani secret service (ISI) sponsers jihadi groups who attack US troops in Afghanistan. Those same Jihadis have infiltrated the Paki military and nobody knows how many generals are symapathetic to the fundamentalists or are fundies themselves and, for a small donation, might pull a sick day for a whole regiment while a bunch of loons drive off base with a kiloton yield sky god bomb stashed in the back of a U-Haul truck.

          Let's face it, the more Pakistan destabilizes, the more the chances of my doomsday scenario happening sky rocket. Next up, it's a simple matter of loading the bomb onto some rusty Panamanian freighter with dodgy paperwork and then it's time to set sail for a port city near you. Meanwhile, some sleazy ISI guy calls up the whack jobs on board and releases the launch codes and signs off with a friendly 'Allah Ackbar'. A week later, the vessel approaches a Western City, let's say San Francisco, and rolls into the harbor unchecked. Meanwhile, the TSA are searching your WWII vet grand dad to see if he's a closet terrorist. What kind of defense plan is that? It's so shit it's the reason I know the War on Terror is a media event and not real. If it were real, intelligent guys would be fighting it and ditching the hyperbole.

        So, D-Day happens and a square mile of San Francisco is ashes.

        What next?

        For one thing, we've just entered a Brave New World.

        Every human on the planet is shitting themselves wondering what the Pentagon's next move will be and the world's nuke arsenals are on high alert. Meanwhile, Western countries have turned overnight into police states. Only kidding, they're already police states but I'm talking full on no holes barred shit like checkpoints every where, the National Guard roaming around in military trucks doing random searches of your grandma's bra. The TSA will quadruple in size and be everywhere. X-Ray scanner vans will drive around city streets, laughing at your naked fat ass and checking what kind of merch you bought at Home Depot.

        The interesting thing is that every nuke blast is traceable to the source uranium. So within hours, the US will know it came from Pakistan. So does the US nuke Pakistan back to the Stone Age for the actions of a small bunch of organized religous freaks? That's the most interesting question in modern warfare right now. Do you punish 170 million people (most of them illiterate peasants) for the actions of a small group of Islamic crazies? How do you respond? Millions in Afghanistan and Iraq got killed or displaced because of the actions of nineteen Saudi Arabian terrorists. Hell, Bin Laden family relatives got a free flight out of the country after 9/11 when the air space was in lock down.

        At some point, you've got to admit, we today are living in a dystopian sci fi novel and nobody realizes it because there are so many ways to escape reality. It's a scary world and as the energy depletes and the population passes 7 billion, you have to switch off the TV and face some scary truths.

        That guy with the sign outside the supermarket might not be a whack job.